On the capitalist road

On July 1 the Communist Party of China (CPC) celebrated the 80th anniversary of its foundation. The occasion was marked by a keynote speech delivered by Jiang Zemin, president of the People?s Republic of China (PRC), and general secretary of the CPC (full text at

Today we look briefly at two questions: to what extent - if at all - can the CPC be regarded as a Communist Party, and the PRC be viewed as a socialist state? And, more speculatively, where is China heading?

As regards the first question, some would argue that it can be answered in two words: Tiananmen Square. What kind of Communist Party is it, presiding over what kind of socialist state, that has to resort to tanks and automatic weapons in order to deal with dissent? On this view, the events of June 1989 showed a faltering bureaucratic elite using brute force to maintain its power and privileges in the face of a democratic revolt from below.

Others would argue that those who were killed, wounded or shipped off to prison in their hundreds were treacherous counterrevolutionaries intent on overthrowing socialism and that they got what they deserved. Eleven years later, perhaps a sober look at theory and an attempt to analyse contemporary reality can answer the question as to who were - and are - the real counterrevolutionaries.

First, theory. Representing as it does the current official ideology of the CPC leadership, Jiang?s speech needs to be studied carefully, but, as always where the Chinese party is concerned, with a well-known quotation from Alice in Wonderland firmly in mind: ?When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less?.

What, for example, does the category ?socialism with Chinese characteristics? - the political, economic and social basis of the of the PRC as a state formation - actually mean? Jiang tells us that it rests on ?Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong thought and Deng Xiaoping theory? - especially the latter, which constitutes ?the best continuation and creative development of Mao Zedong thought under the new historical conditions?. Why is Deng?s theory so important to the CPC? Because his ?four modernisations? (in industry, agriculture, science/technology and defence), codified at the 3rd plenum of the 11th central committee of the CPC in December 1978, represented a fundamental shift in the direction of ?socialist modernisation?: ie, the introduction of ?market socialism?, a process that continues to this day.

From the 1950s onwards, when Deng joined forces with such ?pragmatists? as Liu Shaoqui, he consistently argued for the decentralisation of the economy and for state enterprises to be run with a free hand on the basis of cost-accounting by skilled technical and managerial elites. Deng?s ?pragmatism? meant that he was purged from the party on several occasions, but, following Mao?s death in 1976 and the subsequent rout of the Gang of Four, his position as paramount leader eventually gave him the power openly to extend the ?four modernisations? in the direction of a mixed economy. Today China has a still relatively small but economically significant and fast-growing private enterprise sector run by entrepreneurs on the basis of capitalist relations of production.

The theoretical justification for Deng?s revisionism and hence for ?socialism with Chinese characteristics?, reiterated in its latest version by Jiang, derives from a consciously distorted reading of the central tenets of Marx?s historical materialism, specifically with regard to the dialectical interrelationship between productive forces and production relations and between base and superstructure.

First, let us look at the classic formulation in Marx?s own writings: ?In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will: namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness ...

?At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or - this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms - with the property relations within which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution? (K Marx A contribution to the critique of political economy Moscow 1970, p20f).

It should be clear to anyone that at the centre of Marx?s conception there lies not primarily a technical-economic question, but a political one - the question of class struggle and revolution. The ever intensifying contradiction between dynamically developing productive forces and increasingly stultified production relations results in a situation where the ruling class is no longer able, and the oppressed classes are no longer willing, to be ruled in the old way. The inevitable outcome is a revolution and the supersession of the old ruling class.

Specifically in terms of capitalism, it means that the socialisation of labour reaches a point where the proletariat, through its consciousness and self-activity, emancipates itself from oppression and alienation and, in liberating itself, liberates the whole of humanity. Historically the role of the Communist Party is to act as the vanguard of the advanced working class and its allies in bringing this situation about.

Of course, neither Deng nor Jiang could deny this fundamental tenet of Marxism, nor the realities of the 1949 revolution. Jiang acknowledges that the victorious CPC ?abrogated the privileges of imperialism in China, eliminated exploitation and oppression by the landlord class and the bureaucrat-capitalist class, changed the comprador feudal production relations and the rotten political superstructure rooted in such an economic base, and established a new political superstructure with the people?s democratic dictatorship as the core?.

In the same breath, however, Jiang asserts - in a characteristic and constantly reiterated formulation - that, ?Productive forces are the most dynamic and the most revolutionary factor?. The CPC in 1949 is depicted, bizarrely, not as the vanguard party of a revolutionary mass of proletarians and peasants, liberating themselves from the yoke of oppression and exploitation, but as ?the representative of China?s advanced productive forces at its very inception?. Obviously there is a truth here. It was necessary for the CPC to carry out the ?socialist transformation of agriculture, handicraft industry, capitalist industry and commerce in order to establish socialist relations of production, and, on that economic base, bring the socialist superstructure to perfection?, as Jiang puts it. But in a way that imparts an entirely one-sided, static and undialectical character to the interrelationship, Jiang repeatedly emphasises that the primary purpose of the revolution, the overriding objective of the CPC then and now, was and is ?to further release and develop productive forces?.

The political reason for this one-sidedness, and for the wooden, literal-minded application of the base-superstructure model becomes clear: ?It is for the same purpose that we have since the 3rd plenum of the 11th party central committee carried out reforms and opening up policies to adjust and reform the part of the socialist relations of production that is incompatible with the demand of the development of the productive forces and to adjust and reform the part of socialist superstructure that is incompatible with the economic base? (my emphasis).

When translated into plain English, this core element in ?Deng Xiaoping theory? means the recognition in the late 1970s that the old bureaucratic, command-administrative methods of the centrally planned economy were not working. Economic stagnation, with its consequent effects in terms of political and social instability, was (correctly) perceived as a threat to the hegemony of the CPC over the working class and the rest of the population. Hence, the need to ?adjust and reform? the system by moving back to the market.

Jiang?s own contribution to the theory, known as ?the three representations?, was first published last year. It sets out the role of the CPC as advancing the productive forces, advancing Chinese culture (ie, ?localising? Marxism by infusing it with ?the splendid thought of the Chinese nation?) and representing ?the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people?. On one level, the latter formula could simply be taken as affirming the CPC?s role as representing the proletariat and peasantry, who do numerically constitute the overwhelming majority of the population. But on another level, it resembles the claims first made by Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev that the CPSU had become ?the party of the entire people?. In this sense, it is about giving the CPC a new identity and legitimating its hold on power.

On the basis of ?Deng Xiaoping theory?, can the CPC theoretically be described as a Communist Party in any meaningful sense? No, comrades, it cannot. Not unless your definition of a Communist Party sees one of the party?s tasks as encouraging millions of workers and peasants to sell themselves to capitalists as wage slaves.

Can the PRC theoretically be described as a socialist or workers? state? Only by those (mainly from the Trotskyite tradition) who make a fetish of property forms. In China, they will tell us, most of the productive forces are state-owned, ergo China is a ?workers? state? - ?deformed? or ?degenerate? perhaps. But it is surely obvious that this apparent social ownership of the means of production is purely formal. Ownership of nationalised industry may have been formally vested in the hands of the proletariat, but, given the absence of even the most primitive forms of democracy, control over it is exercised exclusively by the party and the bureaucratic apparatus. That is precisely the point - democracy. Without democracy there can be no socialism, and in China there is no democracy.

Turning from theory to the contemporary reality of China, what do we find? As stated, the private sector is still small, but growing fast. Jiang, premier Zhu Rongji and other members of the standing committee of the political bureau of the CPC took the opportunity presented by the anniversary to issue pressing invitations to transnationals and other foreign capitalists, urging them not only to invest finance capital in the private sector of the economy, but to set up their own plants using native Chinese labour. The principal reason for China?s ambition to host the 2008 Olympic Games is not national pride (though that is important), but to benefit from the huge inflow of foreign investment and exposure to potential investors that the project would inevitably entail.

At present some 24 million Chinese are employed in private enterprises - with the figure rising to over 50 million if you include small firms employing eight or less workers. Approximately 1.5 million entrepreneurs are engaged in the exploitation of Chinese wage labourers and peasants. Reportedly, the CPC is about to lift its ban on party members engaging in private enterprise - not before time, since some of the richest and most influential capitalists have emerged from the ranks of the CPC itself and remain nominal ?communists?. This exemplifies perfectly the extent to which the party, riddled with graft and corruption that reaches the highest levels, has used its monopoly on power to engage in capitalism on a large scale.

The background to the growth of the private sector is one of increasing social dislocation, given that many state-owned enterprises have been milked of their assets and left effectively to go bust. The result is increasing levels of unemployment and the creation of a deeply disaffected layer of the population drifting into such crimes as drug trafficking. Minister of public security Jia Chunwang was recently forced to confirm unofficial reports that trade in and consumption of drugs, including hard drugs, was becoming a serious problem in all areas of the country. Evidently the frequent public executions of drug dealers (some 50 were shot on June 26 alone to commemorate UN anti-drugs day) is not having the desired deterrent effect.

A report in May from the CPC?s organisation department warned that, ?If there are no channels for letting off steam, the repressed discontent of individuals could well up into large-scale social instability? (The Economist June 30). One channel for ?letting off steam? that is absolutely forbidden is the formation of political organisations outside the absolute control of the CPC. There are eight ?democratic parties? notionally autonomous from the CPC, but nothing resembling an organised opposition. The leaders of the China Democratic Party, the first embryonic attempt at constituting a nationwide political opposition to the CPC are still in prison, and even agitating for a multi-party system is a criminal offence.

Experiments involving the introduction of the secret ballot for the election of village leaders in rural areas were introduced - not primarily as a gesture in the direction of democracy, but as a means of trying to encourage the emergence of competent leader-managers to replace CPC party secretaries. The result, however, has often been merely to create rival centres of power and deepening local antagonisms, especially in view of the continued prevalence of corruption and illegality.

Given the CPC?s absolute monopoly on political power, the vacuum that would have been filled by the formation of bodies genuinely committed to furthering the collective interests of workers and peasants has instead been filled by criminal gangs, clans and the cats paws of private business interests, whose money and power make it easy for them to buy their way into doing whatever they want.

The coexistence of a totalitarian political system with free market economics is not, of course, impossible, but as the private sector and particularly the involvement of foreign capital increases, the logic of the situation must lead to pressure for political pluralism along the lines of classic western bourgeois democracy. There is little indication that the leadership of the CPC is prepared to countenance such a development.

At next year?s 16th party congress, Jiang is due to step down as party chief. At 58, his designated successor, Hu Jintao, best known for his draconian exercise of the role of party secretary for Tibet, is a relative youngster, but hardly looks cast in the mould of a reformer. As more and more posts in the party are filled by those for whom Mao Zedong is just a name in a history book, there may be some pressure from within the party apparatus itself to engage in a fundamental re-examination of the CPC?s identity and role in an economically diversified, mixed economy but that is hardly likely to result in change profound enough to deal with growing levels of discontent.

Certainly, the vapid banalities of ?Deng Xiaoping theory? and Jiang?s ?three representatives? can do nothing to resolve the massive contradictions that face the country, nor can they disguise the fact that the CPC itself has been the author of a counterrevolution over which sooner or later it is doomed to lose control.

Michael Malkin